Practical Advice for Beginning Fiction Writers

Award-Winning, Amazon Top 100 Author George Bernstein shares with us…

George Bernstein Photo

First, don’t do it, if that’s how you plan on making a living. Sure, we all hear about the fabulous successes of the J.K. Rowlings and John Greshams, but what you don’t hear is how long they struggled to even get published, and that people who make real money writing fiction are about .01% of all the writers out there. That’s 1/100th of ONE PER CENT! One in 10,000.

Second, if you’re still intent on being a writer and getting published by a REAL publisher, you’d better have a thick skin and be able to accept rejection… after rejection… after rejection! You may NEVER find an agent or publisher for your work. Louis L’Amore, probably America’s most prolific writer of Westerns, was reputedly rejected 350 times before getting his first story published. Even getting an agent is no guarantee of being published. I know of agents who have shop manuscripts they love for years and never find a buyer.

So, unless you’re writing for the joy of it… that you really want to get that story down on paper, no matter what… then find some better use for your time.

But if in the face of all that, you still want to write that novel, then here’s some advice.

First, pick up a couple of books on fiction writing. Donald Maass’ “Writing the Breakout Novel,” and Albert Zuckerman’s “Writing the Blockbuster Novel,” are two of a legion of titles available. Zuckerman’s book gives you a complete roadmap, from beginning to end. You can search Amazon or www.ABE.com (good, like-new used books, cheaper) or the library. While you’re at it, you should pick up Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers,” which you’ll need later. Read those first, to get you on the right track.

Now, imagine the story you want to write, think of where it’s going and the characters who are going to take it there…and how you want it to end. I usually start with the end result I’m seeking and work backwards. But be prepared for that to change as you begin writing. More about that later.

Once I have my plot in mind, I write a brief, 2 or 3 sentence chapter by chapter outline. Then I make up 4 x 6 profile cards for each character. Those cards should show their physical appearance (eye color, hair, nose, height, build, distinguishing features, etc.), and who they are (personality), and a list of their various interests. The more complete you make these, the more your characters will take on real-life dimensions. And if while fleshing out your story, you add something to the character, add it to their card. You don’t want a blue-eyed gal to have “emerald” eyes later. Believe me, it happens. I also have a card or two where I jot down every miscellaneous person mentioned, with a brief note who they are, in case I mention them again later.

Time to begin writing. Everyone does this differently. Personally, I’ll write the entire story before I do much editing. I don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar while I’m getting my story down. I try to get emotionally involved with my protagonist, and I let him (or her) take over the plot. This is the change I mentioned earlier. Each of my four novels changed substantially from my original outline, as I got into the story. As I immerse myself in the story, I find my characters often drag me into unexpected waters, with unforetold consequences.  Even the endings on a couple of novels got changed. In collaboration with my editor, Dee Burks, at TAG Publishers LLC, I made substantial revisions to much of the end of TRAPPED, although I preserved the very ending.

The hard work comes after you’ve finished the first draft. My immediate task is correcting mechanical errors: spelling, punctuation, grammar and sentence construction. Then look at the story. Did you create tension? Donald Maass asks, “What’s the worst thing that can happen to your characters?” After coming up with that trauma, he asks, “What can be WORSE than that?” Wow! Even worse! Okay, you finally think of something really bad, and then Maass asks, “What’s even WORSE than that?” If there’s no jeopardy… no anxiety… no one will bother reading it. Dangerous or critical scenes should be pages, and even chapters long before being resolved. Many new writers miss this.

Okay, now you’ve built lots of tension, so it’s time to read the dialog out loud. Does it sound contrived or natural? Join a critique group where you can read some pages, and listen to others read theirs… and develop a sense of what sounds good. Many good storytellers struggle with natural sounding dialog, so don’t despair. The best dialog requires few tags. Readers should usually know who is talking, but if you need a tag for clarity, keep it mostly to “he said; she said.” People don’t “smile” words, and rather than “grumble,” which is “telling,” show it with action: frowning; clenched teeth; pinched lips, etc.  And feel free to use contractions. People rarely say “I do not” instead of “don’t”…unless it’s done for emphasis.

Once you’ve handled dialog, go back over the entire novel and find “static” words, replacing them with vibrant words. He “scurried” from the room, not “ran.” She “studied” him, not “looked.” The sun “burst” over the horizon, not “rose.” This is how you punch up your prose, and develop you own “voice.”

Finally, review your descriptive areas. It’s important for your readers to have a mental picture of how someone or someplace looks… but don’t over-do it. Some writers spend a half-page describing how a person is dressed. That’s way too much, and takes your readers out of the story. Find the middle ground… a sense of who they are and what they look like without burying the reader in minutia.

And, don’t think one edit or revision will do it, either. I removed a complete side plot from my original version of TRAPPED. It was exciting, but just didn’t add to that story. But it wasn’t a loss. I’m using it in one of my new Al Warner detective novel, so that manuscript starts out already half written.

Finally, if you are intent on becoming a well-reviewed, successful author… someone who actually sells books (most self-published books sell less than 100 in their LIFETIME!), submit your masterpiece to a good professional editor. This can run from about $800 for a content editor who will review plot, pacing and overall structure, to a line editor, usually over $2000, who does exactly that: go over your story line by line, dealing with everything. These editors charge by the word count or page count. Unfortunately, it’s an expense many self-published authors don’t spend, but even the best top-selling authors’ books are reviewed and critiqued by professional editors.

In the end, writing the first novel will be a huge learning experience. Few authors get their first novel published. In a sense, I’ve bucked that trend, since TRAPPED was my first novel, but it was rejected over fifty times before becoming a winner in TAG’s “Next Great American Novel” contest, and becoming an Amazon Top 100 Novel, and TRAPPED is so rewritten from my first draft, it might as well be my 5th…or 6th.  In the meantime, I’ve written and published three others.

That’s what it takes to succeed.

Read about his latest book below 

About the Book Born to Die by George Bernstein

Cover Born to DieToo many infant boys of Palm Beach gentry are dying of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Only obstetrics nurse, Casey Jansson, is suspicious.

Al Warner, crack Miami Homicide detective, is inactive, languishing on medical leave after a deadly shootout with a serial killer, “The Angel of Death.”  He’s in the best physical condition of his life, but is struggling to convince the Department’s shrink he is not suffering from PTSD.

Warner meets Casey at a local pub. They are attracted to each other, but misreading the other’s body language, remain reserved.  Learning of the SIDS deaths from Casey, Warner concedes it sounds more than coincidental, but can find no obvious Motive or Opportunity. However, he agrees to help investigate, hoping romance develops later.

Casey’s obsession eventually tangles her in mortal danger. Only Warner can save her, if he can figure out where she went, and get there in time.

About the Author

George A. Bernstein is the retired President of a Chicago small appliance company, now living in south Florida. Born to Die is the 2nd in his Detective Al Warner Suspense series, following Death’s Angel, a 5-Star reviewed novel. Two more are already in the works. Bernstein’s first novel, Trapped, was a winner in a publisher’s “Next Great American Novel” contest, and has gained mostly 5-Star reviews at Amazon and Goodreads while becoming an Amazon Top 100 Novel. His 2nd novel,  A 3rd Time to Die (A paranormal Romantic Suspense), also has almost all 5-Star Reviews, with one reader likening him to the best, less “spooky” works of Dean Koontz & Stephen King.

He’s also a “World-class” fly-fisherman, recently catching his 13th fly rod IGFA World Records, and has published Toothy Critters Love Flies  (www.pikeflyguy.com), the complete book on fly-fishing for pike & musky.

 Website | Twitter | Facebook  

Amazon  |  Amazon Author Page

Follow the Tour  for excerpts, reviews & interviews

1 Comment

Filed under Showcase, Toolbox

One Response to Practical Advice for Beginning Fiction Writers

  1. Thank you George for a wonderful guest post!